Hugo Chávez is in Havana. Venezuela’s cancer-ridden president may be alive in the elite CIMEQ hospital, or he may simply be being kept alive on a life support system as rumours suggest, or he may be getting better, as the Venezuelan government insists. Although he remains, officially, the country’s head of state, nobody really knows the current state of his health – except for the Castro brothers and a handful of close family and government associates. Indeed, since Chávez underwent his fourth round of cancer surgery on December 11, there has been no video of the usually loquacious socialist leader smiling from a hospital bed, no record of him cheering on loyal supporters, no photograph, no tweet even from a president much given to social media (he has 4m followers on Twitter). The only evidence presented that Chávez is still alive, so far, has been a scanned photograph of Chávez’s signature underneath an official decree. But the signature was datelined Caracas, although even the government admits Chávez remains in Havana.
This is an environment ripe for confusion and uncertainty. Indeed, this week, El País, the Spanish newspaper, published a gruesome photograph purporting to be Mr Chávez, lying on a hospital bed with a tube in his mouth. In fact, the picture wasn’t of Chávez, it turned out, and when the newspaper realised the error, it promptly removed the photo and apologised for the error – although not before some early printed editions had gone out with the splash on the front page. From Caracas, the Venezuelan government called the publication “grotesque”. From Buenos Aires, Cristina Fernández also chimed in, calling the picture “vile” and El País an example of the “guttersnipe” press. Ms Fernández is currently embroiled in her own media battle back home.
Chávez has gained much from his relationship with Cuba– and in return sent Havana over the past decade millions of barrels of subsidised oil. Cuban doctors and intelligence officials now form a central part of his government apparatus. Chávez has also cloaked himself in Castro’s anti-Imperialist rhetoric. And he has picked up one or two public relations tricks from Havana too, which have been added to Venezuela’s “hooligan” rhetorical approach to it critics. (Often, no insult has been spared. It’s all part of Caracas’s “malandro”, or gangsta, approach.)
One of these tricks is to seize on errors made by anyone who criticises the revolutionary government. It does not matter how small the error might be – indeed, the smaller the error the better, because by magnifying such mistakes (such as El País’s sensationalism) broader, bigger and entirely valid criticisms are invalidated. Attack, as the old saying goes, is the best defence.
Yoani Sanchez, Cuba’s best known pro-democracy blogger, sees through this tactic clearly. As she wrote today in a tweet from Havana: “The best response to the false photo of Hugo Chávez would be if Cuba’s or Venezuela’s official media published an actual photo of him getting better.” Quite so. That’s the real point here, not the splashed El País photo.